In the early 1990s, before "The Pick" and "The Junior Mint" and "The Puffy Shirt" and "The Big Salad" and "The Soup Nazi," many Americans had never heard of "Seinfeld," the iconic NBC television series that first aired in 1989.
Among the uninitiated was Keith Hernandez. A former National League most valuable player, Hernandez was unaware of the show and uninterested in acting but nevertheless accepted an invitation to guest star. He wound up playing a pivotal role in one of the series' most memorable episodes.
"How lucky was I?" Hernandez, 53, says from New York, where he works as a color commentator on New York Mets telecasts.
A slick-fielding first baseman and five-time All-Star who batted .296 in 17 major league seasons, Hernandez plays himself in "The Boyfriend," a one-hour episode that first aired Feb. 12, 1992, and has been repeated countless times since.
In it, Jerry Seinfeld develops sort of a male-bonding crush on Hernandez, but draws the line at helping him move because, as he tells Elaine Benes, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, "I hardly know the guy."
Hernandez dates Elaine and, in a subplot that spoofs the movie "JFK," is accused of once spitting on Kramer (Michael Richards) and Newman (Wayne Knight) after a game.
It's later revealed that the actual spitter, in a role originally written for Darryl Strawberry, was Mets reliever Roger McDowell -- a "second spitter," as Seinfeld had suggested all along.
In 1997, TV Guide ranked "The Boyfriend" No. 4 on its list of the 100 greatest TV episodes of all time, and Seinfeld often cited it as a personal favorite.
Hernandez, forced to retire from baseball in 1990 because of a back injury, says his appearance on the show extended his celebrity "shelf life," noting that it's rare when more than a few days pass without someone asking him about it.
Ex-ballplayers, even those such as Hernandez who twice played on World Series-winning teams, "fade into the twilight," says the 11-time Gold Glove winner, who spent most of his career with the Mets and St. Louis Cardinals.
But "I have people walk up to me in the airport and say, 'Can I help you move?' Grown adults, kids," he said. " 'What was it like kissing Elaine?' Those are the basic questions. It's just amazing, and it's throughout the country.
"I travel a lot and just last night in Denver this woman with airport security looks at my ID and goes, 'I know who you are.' I said, 'Well, baseball,' and she goes, 'Yeah, but "Seinfeld." ' That happens all the time."
Recently retired at the time, Hernandez had "no aspirations to do anything," he says, when his agent called and asked whether he wanted to appear on the show.
"I had no idea what it was about or anything," Hernandez says. "But he said, 'They'll fly you first class to L.A., put you up in a nice hotel and they'll pay you $15,000.' And I said, 'Sure, I'll do it.' It's kind of hard to turn down that kind of money for a week's work. They told me it was going to be minimal lines, but when I got the script obviously there was a lot more to it, and I immediately panicked."
He says that Seinfeld, a longtime Mets fan, was virtually speechless during their initial encounters and that series co-creator Larry David and others laughingly explained to Hernandez that the comedian was star struck.
Seinfeld admits as much on a DVD of the series, explaining that the Mets were his favorite team and Hernandez his favorite player.
"And I remember the morning that he was going to be on the show standing in my closet looking at my shirts going, 'What should I wear? I'm going to meet Keith Hernandez, what should I wear?' " Seinfeld says. "And I actually even remember feeling sweaty as I was driving to work that I was going to meet Keith Hernandez and how exciting this was going to be."
Hernandez says he was told later that the episode was written in such a way that it could run a half-hour or an hour, "depending on whether I was acceptable."
Apparently, the neophyte was OK, though Hernandez says he was "terrified," especially the night the show was taped in front of a live audience. The other actors didn't understand his trepidation, he says, reminding him that he had always played in front of large crowds.
"Yeah," he told them, "but I don't have to memorize lines."
At week's end, instead of flying back home to New York as originally planned, he says he stayed on at a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica to decompress.
"It was like the weight of the world was off of me," says Hernandez, who has since landed infrequent bit roles in movies and TV episodes, among them the "Seinfeld" finale in 1998. "I just stayed there and recuperated for about six days."
He has rarely seen "The Boyfriend" since it first aired.
"You always look at yourself with a critical eye," he says. "I have a hard time watching it to this day because I think I was so terrible."
Still, Hernandez clearly cherishes his "Seinfeld" memories.
"It certainly was one of the two greatest experiences of my life," he says. "Playing major league baseball for 17 years, playing in two World Series, that has to rank No. 1. But being on that sitcom has to rank No. 2. It was one of the great life experiences for me. I was just so fortunate."
As fans remind him to this day.